‘Manchester by the Sea’ MOVIE REVIEW: Strong Performances with a One-Note Narrative

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Image via Universal Pictures International

Casey Affleck has earned wide acclaim for his performance in Manchester by the Sea, and with good reason. It’s not to say that Affleck gives us a wildly different character, or that he inhabits a role that required him to change his physical appearance by gaining or losing a ton of weight. Simply, it’s a role in which emotion, particularly understated emotion, is the driving force for his character and, in turn, us, the audience. So, just how and if Manchester by the Sea affects you will depend on whether or not you embrace said downplay.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a quiet, withdrawn individual living alone as a handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts. He learns that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has suffered a heart attack and makes the trip to the hospital, only to find that he hasn’t made it in time. He heads to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to inform his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), of his father’s passing and to arrange the funeral, and soon learns that his brother has named him as Patrick’s guardian. It’s a predicament; Lee is by no means emotionally stable and, for reasons we will soon learn, has no intention of returning to his hometown.

Image via Universal Pictures International

The film unfolds calmly, painting a picture of a man weighed down by a tragic past and an unshakeable sense of guilt. Recurring flashbacks provide the necessary backstory, drip-feeding us slices of life with his brother and young nephew while he attempts to deal with his newfound situation in the present. On face value, it’s quite a straightforward, simple story, but the depth lies in the film’s focus on internal conflicts, desperation and anguish, and the use of carefully placed recollections help us uncover the bigger picture.

While writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) ensures the structure and overall tone of the film is confidently handled, whether or not it works to provide a completely engrossing experience is another story. The film is consumed by Lee’s persona, matching the character’s frustrating traits by embracing – with scarcely a hiatus in sight – an almost suffocating sense of depression and demoralised musings, and offering little resolution and repetitive emotional beats fail to justify the film’s running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. It’s an unfortunately one-key affair, keeping a quietly mournful tone for such long periods of time that even welcome – and occasionally surprising – doses of humour do little to spark up proceedings.

Nevertheless, Lonergan’s screenplay does touch on very real, very human sentiments, providing us with undoubtedly strong scenes that carry serious weight. You’ll be hard-pressed not to be moved by the honesty on display in several of the film’s exchanges, with characters aching to say more as they awkwardly talk over each other and attempt to keep their emotions from spilling out. And then there’s the tragedy; the major reveal tackling the event that turned Lee is downright harrowing.

Image via Universal Pictures International

Luckily, Lonergan has a cast willing and capable of delivering on every nuance. Affleck provides one of his strongest performances, taking the type of sombre, dare I say morose, personality we’ve seen him gravitate towards and infusing it with a tangible sense of suffering and despair. Lucas Hedges also knocks it out of the park with his turn as Lee’s nephew, a boy struggling to lead a regular teenage life in tragic circumstances; further exacerbated by feeling unwanted by the only parental figure he has left. And Michelle Williams, who ultimately only appears in a handful of scenes, provides a truly heartbreaking turn as Lee’s ex-wife.

It’s undeniable that Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea has some painful moments. The screenplay taps into the quiet pain that certain tragedies can provide and tackles themes of responsibility and guilt in truthful, unfussy ways. However, despite fantastic turns from an on-point cast, these strong moments are unfortunately scattered throughout a narrative that peaks on occasion and more often than not dwells in downhearted lethargy.

THE REEL SCORE: 6/10